Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Brett Whiteley Shipwrecked

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley Shipwrecked,
ink on paper, 59x42cm

"I notice a lot of gifted people shipwreck ... the whole notion of having a gift – there is this requirement in it to test it, to ride close to the edge. It seems part and parcel of the very notion of a gift to – to – to rebel against it. And to see whether it is really real. Because it can be very easily dissipated or damaged. Or, ultimately, destroyed. And I’ve had an immense problem with it. Because I don’t really want to spend a lot of time discussing the notion of the disease of addiction, but all my heroes have been addicts and I am an addict, and for the rest of my life, I will struggle against the embracing of the mysterious self-destructive self-murder, the urge to deny, defy, wreck, ruin, challenge, one’s gift." 

[Brett Whiteley from transcript of 1989 video clip Difficult Pleasure: A Portrait of Brett Whiteley ... listen to Brett talk about his gift @ Australian Screen  HERE]

I tried to delve a little deeper to let this image float into consciousness, to move further away from naturalistic likenesses into suggestive, ambiguous imagery:

... the drowned sailor washed ashore with his hair matted in the strand kelp,

...  Ozymandias' head half buried in the desert sands: 
"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." [Shelley]

A favourite piece of music he would listen to in his studio, as he painted on the way to shipwreck, was Tom Waits's Shiver Me Timbers .
I'm leavin' my fam'ly
Leavin' all my friends
My body's at home
But my heart's in the wind
Where the clouds are like headlines
On a new front page sky
My tears are salt water
And the moon's full and high.

You can listen to it here on this Youtube clip.

Brett Whiteley Shipwrecked (detail)



  1. And what is this stuff of addiction, Harry? There are those who might describe it as a death wish, this sailing close to the edge only to dash up against the rocks of reality. The battle between life and death, which to me is a constant.

    I have a propensity towards extremes too, which to my way of thinking is akin to addiction wanting more more more or less less and less, but never the same old dull average and medium.

    I've been told by a learned psychotherapist that if a person is completely sane, as if such a person could exist, there would be no need for creativity. Creativity thrives on imbalance and needs and desires and I suspect all the things that feed addictive behaviour.

    So we can talk about it, addiction, till the cows come home, but I'm with Whitely. It is what it is, and sadly if it goes too far too soon it kills but in the meantime it can offer up such wonders. Is the price too high? For some perhaps, for others I suspect not.

  2. Thought-provoking observations, Elizabeth. From how i read Brett Whiteley, they are musings that much occupied him too.

    BW had a kind Promethean view of himself as 'Artist', as stealing fire from the gods by raiding his unconscious in surreal free-associations on canvas.

    Yes, he resorted to alcohol and drugs to help at times to help him do that, but he also just put in a lot of sobre focus, time, and inner turmoil.

    I suspect that the booze and dope was also there to tranquilize his inner turmoil after wrestling his demons ... and to give him Dutch courage in the face of some hostile criticism from art critics when all he wanted was love served up as adulation. (He inserted "Critics are the dildoes of art" on his major autobiographical painting Alchemy).

    But in the end Prometheus pays a price for bringing us fire. That price was also part of his romantic mythology of himself as Gifted Artist.

    He sometimes spoke of the creative process as a kind of dying and a kind of birthing.

  3. I don't know what to say about this drawing other than it's familiar (which makes it scary)and it's wonderful. I think the creative process is about dying and birthing--it can be exhausting and can probably take your life.

    1. Scary sounds promising, Hallie. Scary usually means i'm accessing something from the unconscious.

      BW often talked of death in relation to creation. For him, creating was an act of change, and changing in turn was a kind of dying, the death of what had gone before.

  4. "Brett Whiteley Shipwrecked"

    Harry, you did a masterful job on Brett!
    As always, you treat the subject with much depth - which is a true delight for us ...
    but this particular work for me, arrived quickly to my heart ...
    this gaze, head position, the graphics
    are amazing!

    thanks for everything,
    for teaching us so much!
    a real hug

    1. Hi Denise. So glad you find it of interest.

      I sometimes worry i'm swamping my poor viewers with detail, though really, I'm simply trying to share bits of what i discover in my research - especially those bits that make me think and inspire me to paint.